08/10/2011 06:23 PM

The Korean DMZ

Souvenirs from the World's Most Dangerous Border

By in Beijing

Given that North and South Korea are still technically at war, the wall between them is officially a cease-fire line. With its watchtowers and guns, the demilitarized zone is the world's most dangerous border, no matter how popular it may be with tourists.

On the northern side, an empty highway leads to the demilitarized zone. If you approach from the south, you travel along a busy road where the first watchtowers with soldiers appear shortly after you leave the South Korean capital Seoul. At the end of that road, walls, tank traps and barbed-wire fences bar you from continuing any further.

Welcome to the 38th Parallel, probably the world's most dangerous border. The line has cut the Korean Peninsula in two since 1945. In North Korea, "Comrade General" Kim Jong-il has his finger on the nuclear button; American troops are still stationed in South Korea. Both capital cities, Pyongyang and Seoul, are within range of enemy artillery.

There is no regular way through and only rarely are delegations allowed to cross the border. The economic area of Kaesong forms an exception; it is a South Korean enclave in the North where 40,000 North Korean workers produce clothing and electronic goods in factories belonging to southern firms.

The countries are still officially at war. The 38th Parallel is a cease-fire line. A little background history: In 1950, the communist North attacked the South and even captured Seoul. American-led United Nations troops intervened. Once they had advanced through the northern part of the peninsula as far as the Chinese border, Mao Zedong leapt to the North Koreans' assistance with an army of so-called volunteers.

The war produced no victor and ended where it had begun: at the 38th Parallel. Yet 1.5 million soldiers were dead or injured and 2 million civilians had lost their lives. The two sides couldn't agree on a peace treaty, so they drew a demarcation line 248 kilometers (154 miles) long and four kilometers wide. A maritime border was also demarcated, but North Korea refuses to accept it to this day. It continues to be a source of conflict.

The South Koreans have made the border into a tourist destination with merry-go-rounds and souvenir stalls. They also showcase "Tunnel No. 3" through which North Korean soldiers had hoped to infiltrate the South in 1978 and which was only discovered in the nick of time.

Their counterparts in the North also invite tourists to the border, more specifically to Panmunjom. There they show off, among other things, the humble buildings where the armistice was signed in 1953.

A couple of hundred meters from there, American and South Korean soldiers stand opposite North Korean soldiers just a few centimeters away. Standing with their legs apart and wearing gleaming steel helmets and mirrored sunglasses, the South Koreans look like something from a Star Wars movie; their counterparts from the other side in their brown uniforms wore large flat caps for a long time but have recently also had steel helmets issued to them.

If the military have to discuss conflict situations, they meet in the middle of the three blue barracks placed right on the demarcation line. Guests of the North Koreans may visit the middle barrack every other day. This often sends a shiver down visitors' spines because South Korean soldiers are staring threateningly through the windows and filming those present. The same ritual happens in reverse when the South Koreans come with their visitors.

It appears that this absurdity of world history might last indefinitely. Peace between the Korean peoples is still nowhere in sight.


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